The Art of the Duluth Winter

29 Feb

I have enjoyed this winter. Of course, it has (knock on wood) cooperated more than most so far; after we took a beatdown from a snowstorm over Thanksgiving, it’s been relatively balmy, with a welcome lack of polar vortexes or repeat snow events. The addition of a remote starter to my driving life has also added a new dose of luxury. A pile of blankets and a good book gets me through the routine nights; visitors from afar, so common in and a round the holidays, help the cause as well. But in my fourth year back in this city, I’m coming to perfect the art of the Duluth winter, a necessary challenge for anyone who wants to make this city a true home.

As the absence of most other topics from this blog this time of year shows, much of that free time is devoted to hockey. I average of two games in person a week, plus a few more evenings where I’m home but have a game streaming in the background, and a few hours of podcast work every Sunday. The hockey life also means frequent phone calls with co-conspirators, periodic drinks with the parents before or after games, and the occasional trek to Eveleth or Grand Rapids to see one of the state’s grand old arenas and rub my shoulders against some new friends. From Thanksgiving to the first full week of March, I have a diversion that can get me through any amount of cold, and make myself a part of a sprawling, squabbling, loving community.

Hockey is just one element of my attack on winter, though, and the second these days is my continued progression into a reasonably capable cross-country skier. I’m out twice a week, gliding about the local trail systems: that usually means one evening on the lit course at Lester Park, plus a longer excursion to some other ski area on a weekend. Lester is a home course of sorts for me, as I grew up within walking distance of it, and my younger self would indeed sometimes just pick up his skis and hike over to plow around its lit loop, one of those delights of a Duluth childhood one can only appreciate after losing it. I’ve done the initial loops from the playground up through the first few cutoffs countless times, and I know the unlit Lester River loop so well that I now run it in the dark, its rises and falls encoded in my muscles, and I can pause to gaze down the moonlit slopes to the river below.

Still, I try to get out to different areas. Hartley’s circuits can grow a bit inane for someone seeking to do eight-plus kilometers, but the part of trail that rises up into the pines is magnificent near sunset, and I attempted it with a headlamp once this year and found I was far from alone. Out west, Piedmont provides a reliable loop, while the constant ups and downs of Magney-Snively afford magnificent views of the St. Louis River estuary. To the north is Boulder Lake, an old favorite of my dad’s; for the first time this year I did the entire system, including the prisoner’s dilemma forced by two trails at the end of an esker on the Ridge Runner trail. Up the shore, the Finns have left their mark: Korkki offers some adventurous hill work, while Erkki Harju in Two Harbors allows for some of the smoothest long, coasting downhills. Every course offers some different challenge, some new diversion that can vary with the conditions each week.

My special place remains the Northwoods system in Silver Bay, with its outlet on to Bean Lake and the ever-alluring Tettegouche connector through Palisade Valley, a trek that has become an annual tradition. Palisade Valley feels like a journey in a way no looping trail system can, a quest outward and back through winter in perfect repose. I made the trip in record time this year, even with the trail crumbling in places due to warmth. I pause briefly in the camp on Mic Mac Lake to gaze skyward and breathe in winter as deeply as I can, and linger a while longer on Bean Lake to reclaim life without that breakneck instinct, negotiate the peace between two competing but necessary forces. My furnace burns up all of my calories, and a stop at Cedar Coffee in Two Harbors is in order once again.

After that, it’s back to the blur. Mountain Iron on Monday, Aurora on Tuesday, Eveleth Wednesday, North Branch Friday. Two hockey games where I’ll make my circuit, have five people stop me to chat and fifteen tweets to answer. Board games on Saturday night; hearty meals, wine or stouts or a steaming tea. As February wears on, my reading turns to travelogues, and I might drift off on my couch on a sunny afternoon following some traveler through Delhi or Samarkand, a dose of escapism to feed my wanderlust. I plan a real-world escape sometime in April, in that grotesque Minnesota season when the hockey is done and the ski trails are slop but the weather has yet to release us for summer activities. That, for me, is the only truly challenging season in this city.

We all have our own coping mechanisms, and no doubt this city tries me at times. But I don’t live in Duluth to endure it. I live here because I want to love it.

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